Farm in the City

Here at Cornercopia Farm, we’ve got our fingers in a lot of different pies: research, education, teaching, sharing, organic, local, university, community...the list goes on, and it evolves as we bring new minds and new experience to the project. It’s easy to forget, though, that at the heart of things we’re trying something pretty remarkable: to farm in the middle of a big city.

‘Urban agriculture’ might easily come across as a contradiction in terms, or as a trumped up way of saying ‘gardening.’ What we’re talking about is intensive food production, whether for supplement, subsistence, market or amusement. Certainly, some urban gardeners run their backyards with all the rigor of a farm, and some farmers don’t get off their combines long enough to get their fingernails dirty. I’d argue that there’s no need to define these practices too narrowly. Agriculture is an ancient, nearly universal human activity, which makes it a pretty big tent—everyone is welcome.

People have also been growing food in cities to one degree or another, of course, since time out of mind. In that sense, what we’re doing is nothing new. But in the context of our times, urban agriculture represents an important reclamation, and also a shift in the way we live, work, buy, and eat.

Human beings are now urban animals. In 2007, a United Nations study announced that more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. You could say, in a sense, that cities—not farms, fields, mountains, or trees—are our primary habitat. Yet our cities are full of reminders of the natural world we turned our backs on to join the rat race: lawns, plastic plants, shady boulevards, scenic riverways, havens of greenspace and birdsong. We establish and frequent places like Central Park because we want to have it both ways: natural and urban together.

When you think about it that way, bringing agriculture within city limits isn’t too large a cognitive leap from having public parks. The principle is the same: that living in the city shouldn’t mean we have to divorce ourselves from our deep natural roots. In the 21st century city, we can have access to Wi-Fi, public transit, and world-class theatre and still go home to chickens, compost, and pole beans in the backyard.

A working market farm in the city takes this same concept and applies it to a whole community. It gives people direct, local access to their food chain in a healthy way that’s become foreign to most urbanites. At the very least, that kind of access offers people a new understanding of their diet, but in many parts of the country and the world that kind of access is a matter of necessity and social justice.

If it is to succeed and continue its resurgence, urban agriculture must be many things. It must be diverse, in order to reflect and involve the many communities it serves. It must embrace sustainable, alternative practices in order to promote health and cope with the unique challenges of city growing. It must also be creative and resourceful, because by definition it tries to do a lot with a little and go against the grain. And behind it all, growing food in an urban space requires that we learn to look at the city through new eyes; where there are lawns and sidewalks there might be soil, and wherever the sun falls growing things could follow.

Michael Pursell, Blog Editor

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